The Growth Mindset, Effective Effort and Resiliency

(Helping students “fill their toolbox” at a critical time.)

Can students become smarter if they work harder? Do all students fully understand what hard work is? If a student puts in a strong effort on an assignment does it still mean he or she is “learning?” How can you teach all students to enjoy challenges?

These are all important questions for teachers as well as for many parents. From my viewpoint, they have a great deal to do with how successful students will be in school, particularly when they reach sixth or seventh grades – when academic work become more demanding, and preadolescents cannot just rely on old study habits, previous knowledge or strict memorization in the classroom.

A number of years ago, the entire Derby faculty took an intensive, research-based course called “The Skillful Teacher.” One of the significant takeaways from this class was the notion that intelligence is not fixed and that students, in almost every case, can be taught strategies and techniques to “work smart.” (This concept, called the “growth mindset,” is based upon the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading educational psychologist and researcher in the United States.)

What does this look like for a middle school-aged child? The theory posits that students need to do more than just study hard (i.e., time on task completing homework) to be successful mastering challenging assignments and concepts. They must also work “effectively” to ensure that they are both learning and improving as students. For example, Dweck and other growth mindset proponents point to several characteristics as key to students to being able to work smart: resourcefulness (knowing where to go and whom to ask for help when stuck on an assignment); use of feedback (looking carefully at teacher comments on returned tests, essays and projects to know exactly what to fix next time); persistence (if a strategy for studying is not effective, trying different ones until you find one that works); and commitment (being determined to finish every academic task well and to one’s very best ability).

Let’s take this one step further: What does learning to “work smart” have to do with developing resiliency – a quality all parents want to see in our sons and daughters and all teachers want to see in their students? If a child, particularly at the middle school level, can fill his or her toolbox with different strategies such as persistence and resourcefulness, they will inevitably be, I believe, much more successful in school. They will know how to see any mistakes and struggles in their academic life as challenges to be overcome – by counting on what Dweck calls a “repertoire of approaches” to help them grow as effective learners. With this formula, it is hard to think that any student will not be successful in school – here at Derby (particularly in our older grades) and certainly in the future in secondary school and college.

(NOTE: On the topic of resiliency, please mark your calendars for Wednesday, April 20. Dr. Robert Brooks, a nationally and internationally known author and speaker, will be at Derby for an evening presentation for parents. His talk, titled “Raising Resilient Children,” will address the factors that help children become more resilient and deal more effectively with stress and pressure.)

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